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Civil Unions and Marriage: What’s the Difference?


PROVIDENCE, R.I.  – Larry Bacon and Dave Burnett have been together 34 years. Marriage, or a civil union, isn’t likely to strengthen their bond.

“It’s just a word that comes with a lot of legal benefits,” said Bacon, of Newport, R.I. “But those benefits are important.”

Marriage conveys more than 1,000 rights and benefits to spouses. A married person, for instance, has the automatic right to visit their spouse in a hospital or to make medical decisions for them if they cannot. They can share insurance and retirement benefits. Other rights include inheritance and residency status for non-citizen spouses married to a citizen and even the right to visit your spouse in prison.

Civil unions – now proposed in Rhode Island – would grant many of those rights to gay couples, though not all.

Legislation passed by the state House this month would grant gay couples in a civil union all of the state rights and benefits given to married couples under Rhode Island law. It’s based on similar civil union laws in Illinois, Delaware, New Jersey and Hawaii.

Gay marriage is recognized in Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut. Several other states offer domestic partnerships or civil unions.

Civil unions and gay marriage cannot grant any of the federal rights given to married couples because the federal government does not recognize gay unions. Those federal rights of marriage include federal tax benefits, Social Security death benefits and immigration status.

“Civil unions provide rights, but a lot of the rights that people rely on most are federal rights,” said Arthur Leonard, a law professor at New York Law School who studies gay relationship and the law.

There’s also the portability problem. While states recognize opposite-sex marriages performed in other states, most do not recognize gay marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships performed elsewhere.

Civil unions are close enough to full marriage to worry gay marriage opponents, who say redefining marriage would weaken a cornerstone of society. Chris Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island, notes that states with gay marriage often started with civil unions first.

“No matter what you call the relationship, it’s a stepping stone to marriage,” he said.

Without automatic legal recognition of their relationship, gay couples can often create legal arrangements giving them many of the rights of marriage. Annie Cronin-Silva and Melanie Silva of West Warwick have drawn up several such agreements to cover medical decisions, inheritance and property owners. The legal work cost several hundred dollars, Cronin-Silva estimated. The two women were married in Massachusetts in 2008, but the relationship is not recognized in Rhode island.

Aside from the legal rights and benefits, gay marriage supporters argue that marriage grants couples recognition that the term civil union cannot.

“When my wife asked me to marry her, she didn’t ask me to civil union her,” Cronin-Silva said.


Associated Press

The Associated Press is an American multinational nonprofit news agency headquartered in New York City.

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